“Sixty-five million years in the making.”
It was the nifty slogan that adorned just about every childhood bedroom and college dorm in the summer of 1993. From lunchboxes to collectable McDonald’s cups, this brilliantly saccharine turn of marketing phrase was as ubiquitous in the culture as the hand-drawn Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton it accompanied. Dinosaurs—make that Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs—were coming to the big screen in Jurassic Park.
Of course, this masterclass of summer entertainment did not take 65 million years to create. But in many respects, it was the culmination of nearly a hundred years of filmmaking advancement. All the way from when George Méliès first witnessed the Lumière Brothers’ cinematograph and had an idea about visual magic tricks to Jurassic Park’s 1993 release, filmmakers had attempted to deceive the audience through manipulation of space, perception, camera lens, animation, and even the celluloid itself. But with Jurassic Park, moviemaking took its first major step into the world of true digitization and computer generated imagery. The 21st century had arrived in Hollywood seven years early.
To be sure, Jurassic Park was not the first film with a CGI character (that honor goes to the Spielberg produced The Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985), nor even the first good one. Indeed, Terminator 2: Judgment Day beat the Michael Crichton adaptation to the screen by two years. However, Jurassic Park is most definitely the first film to create organic, breathing creatures with computer animation. And it inarguably remains the film with the best use of that visual trick over 25 years later.
By being the first movie to step into this water, Jurassic Park was predicated on a cautiousness and determination to deliver. It thus was compelled to built a stronger digital bridge between the director’s imagination and the audience than anyone, including Spielberg himself, has since been able to duplicate. So join us as we return to Jurassic Park.
Life and Technology Finds a Way
Initially, Jurassic Park was not going to have any compute-generated creatures—which was its advantage.
As soon as Spielberg heard from Crichton that he was developing a Frankenstein parable about dinosaurs, the filmmaker knew he would turn that story into a movie. It didn’t matter that he was currently prepping ER with the author (a failed film attempt before it became a TV series), nor would it play a factor that Crichton was crafting a cautionary and horrific tale of scientists growing faux-dinosaurs that were more genetically manipulated freaks than the actual creatures of a prehistoric age. No, Spielberg was going to make his movie with the clear intent of doing a modern day King Kong, which he’d even admit without a trace of modesty in 1993 interviews.
Just as King Kong set the mind to wonder in 1933 with stop-motion, Spielberg was prepared to use the same evolved technology for Jurassic Park. His first impulse was to apparently visit Bob Gurr, a former Disneyland “Imagineer” who went on to design the King Kong ride at Universal Studios with a life-size animatronic version of the big ape. Likewise, Spielberg imagined creating life-sized animatronic dinosaurs for his film until that proved generally impossible.
Thus just as Crichton’s novel became a bestseller, the director had settled on a path: legendary special effects mastermind Stan Winston would design several animatronic and robotic puppets for the film, including a life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops, and Phil Tippett would create the dinosaurs’ motion via his own patented and most advanced form of stop-motion animation, “Go Motion.”
Tippett had cut his teeth on George Lucas’ first two Star Wars pictures and had already worked with Spielberg on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He also had the reputation of being the best modern guru for a technique that went back at least as far as 1925’s The Lost World. He even went beyond the call for Spielberg by designing three-dimensional storyboards (or “animatics”) with Claymation of all of Jurassic Park’s set-pieces at a time when such precise pre-production visualizations were unusual… it didn’t help him though when Spielberg finally sat down to watch the Go Motion test footage of the T. Rex and Velociraptors with his kids.
Spielberg says his family was impressed, but he could still see the jerkiness and the unsatisfying limit of the technology, which you can view in the sample below.
It was at this moment that Dennis Muren, ILM’s visual effects supervisor on the film, and who had just completed CGI work on The Abyss and T2 for James Cameron, stepped in and suggested that they use computer generated imagery to animate all of the full-body and fast-motion dinosaur shots in the picture. One visual effects test of the Gallimimus dinosaur herd running through a still photograph of Hawaii later, and Spielberg was hooked. Or as Tippett said about his Go Motion, “I think I’m extinct.”
Spielberg used the line in his movie.
Still the Best CGI
So Jurassic Park originally was not going to be ILM’s digital coming out party to the film industry. But that is also why it so brilliantly worked. Unlike the many, many blockbusters that followed Jurassic Park, including the movie’s own sequels, the film was not allowed to use CGI as a crutch or as a shiny new toy that audiences were already queued to be in awe of. Rather Jurassic Park earned that awe since it was not a demo test; it was Spielberg attempting to simulate the grandeur of seeing dinosaurs in the flesh.
To accomplish this effect, much of the dinosaur action in the finished film is still painstakingly realized via Stan Winston’s animatronic puppet work. The first scene Spielberg shot was the Triceratops’ big screen introduction (and not-so-coincidentally, the Triceratops was Spielberg’s favorite childhood dinosaur, hence it replacing a Stegosaurus from this scene in the book). The animal is also one of Winston’s animatronics. The first time we see the T. Rex’s glorious face was also Winston’s animatronic. In fact, most of the T. Rex’s iconic attack on the jeeps is realized via robotic technology.
The suffering (and perhaps danger) that went into creating that scene is also why 26 years later it is still effective. For as much as practically possible, Spielberg, Winston, and Muren attempted to get the “dinosaurs” captured in the camera and on 35mm film. This sequence is especially ambitious because it occurs during a rainstorm, which up until shooting Winston resisted allowing since animatronic puppets are not meant to have countless gallons of water poured onto them.
The T. Rex robot was based on a finely tuned weight, which would be destroyed midway through every day of the shoot. As it turns out, synthetic skin soaks up water, and an excess of liquid mass can cause animatronics to shake uncontrollably. Production would thus have to stop while Winston’s team hand dried the big guy before the next take.
Today, such slavish loyalty and production-slowing to capture the creature on film would never happen. No time would be wasted on an animatronic that could be recreated with a few (or even a million) computer strokes. And for that matter, why spend so much money to shoot in Hawaii when a blue screen and ILM can create the tropical setting much more cheaply?
By the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, CGI creatures had become the norm whether they were Men in Black aliens, super-powered Hulks, sandstorm Mummies, PG-13 werewolves, or one especially annoying Jar Jar Binks.
The advent of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films is rightly praised for remembering to use a real actor’s emotive and pantomime performance to trace the digital creation’s inclusion (as opposed to what was happening in that other famous trilogy of the early 2000s), but Jurassic Park had done something similar nearly 10 years prior. In the first Hollywood introduction to CGI animals, Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren were tracing much of the dinosaurs’ physical movements by transferring them into a computer via the movements of robotic devices created from the Stan Winston workshop.
Inevitably, the early ‘90s digital effects have become dated over the decades, and there is a brightness to the dinosaurs’ skin (particularly in daylight shots) that you probably didn’t notice in 1993 if you were alive to see it then. The then revolutionary movement of the dinos now seems relatively weightless as well when compared to the best effects of later years. However, unlike the best effects of those later years—which probably our current standardbearers like Groot and Thanos—these digital effects in Jurassic Park are contextualized with a cautious reliance on practical alternatives that might be considered expensive or time-wasting today.
The Raptors sniffing in the kitchen, and the Tyrannosaurus shaking a hapless lawyer like a dog with a chewbone? These are amazingly more effective when so many other shots in the film couch the digital effects with long, well-lit close-ups of the “creatures” actually being there on the day. Even when digital effects are implemented, Spielberg refused to stop shooting the dinosaurs from human eye-level, creating a sense of scale and verticality that once more blended the necessity of computer animation with audience intuition (or dread). In the end, the balance is so ageless that the effects still stand up as near impossible to date (the clothes and onscreen technology is another story of course…).
When this is all further serviced by a story that makes its archetypal characters sing with great performances like Sam Neill’s Alan Grant, Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler, or Jeff Goldblum’s appealingly narcissistic Ian Malcolm, the effects are not the sole star of the venture. While hardly the character driven portraits Spielberg has been known to sneak into his popcorn previously with Jaws or Close Encounters, these three still neither portray superheroes or ciphers. They and David Koepp’s screenplay bring just enough of a touch of human scale (and Spielberg awe) to the proceedings, as well as a passing believability of being scientists thrown in a grand adventure. The only larger than life character is Sir Richard Attenborough as John Hammond, who here is less evil capitalist and more a slightly demented Walt Disney (or Spielbergian doppelganger?).
These aren’t complex characters, but they’re authentic. And that tangibility coupled with the texture of Winston’s creatures lent yet another tactility to ILM’s creations.
Spielberg’s Last Popcorn Masterpiece
The visceral combination of all these elements—and a John Williams score that surpassed grandeur and soared to ecclesiastical heights of wonderment—made Jurassic Park the intended modern day King Kong that Spielberg chased. It is the closest thing children of the ‘90s had to claiming their own Star Wars. Indeed, the picture broke box office records to become the highest grossing film of all time at that moment with over $350 million domestically. It also won several Oscars, including one for Best Visual Effects… not to mention the continued awe of multiple moviegoing generations.
Yet its success could not be duplicated; not even by Spielberg himself. One could even say that Jurassic Park is Spielberg’s last popcorn masterpiece.
To be sure, Spielberg has gone on to make an envious number of classic and important American films that have dealt with the most painful of subjects, not least of which includes Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and Lincoln. But the most devastating of these efforts was also the one he made while still working on the effects for Jurassic Park: Schindler’s List.
During the first half of 1993, ILM was hard at work on the visual effects of the dinosaur epic, which was made doubly difficult because the CGI could not be added until Spielberg had finished editing the film in ’92. Due again to those limitations of being the first film to use such extensive CGI, he and Michael Kahn edited the film print without actually having the dinosaurs in the frame—not adding the effects until after the picture was locked and unalterable.
Afterward, Spielberg jetted off to Poland to begin production on Schindler’s List. So it was that he would shoot the most harrowing of Holocaust dramas during the day and come home to spend four nights a week having conferences with ILM after seeing their latest progress on the CGI shots. He’d even spend his weekends flying to Paris to preview audio effects reels (John Williams meanwhile sent him the score via audiocassettes).
About this experience, Spielberg said, “For me, honestly, if I had the choice, I would not have chosen to bifurcate my attention between Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park, because that in itself was a very bipolar experience for me. To be shooting the story of the Holocaust and at the same time, getting these effects of dinosaurs from an entirely different kind of motion picture genre to look believable to audiences.”
And it showed in his next film after ’93. Schindler’s List was yet another masterpiece for Spielberg, but it’s also the first one that articulated itself not through unseen shark attacks or falling boulders, nor carnivorous dinos. It represented a transition in his interests, which he has never really been able to come home from. His subsequent film was 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which he filmed with his Schindler’s List cinematographer to evoke “film noir” during the dinosaurs’ feedings.
Whereas he seemed to want to please the audience with color and majesty in the Dean Cundey-lensed ’93 film, The Lost World seems like an exercise to desperately search for creative avenues in a project that otherwise bored him with the CGI Everest he had already climbed. While he’d have better luck with Minority Report, Spielberg’s subsequent attempts to reenter the popcorn entertainment he once mastered so well usually ended in either awkward post-9/11 allegories (War of the Worlds) or… Crystal Skulls.
But the industry itself didn’t miss a beat, gearing up for the CGI explosion from Independence Day to Twister in Jurassic’s wake, and it hasn’t stopped since.
In 1992 and 1993, Spielberg and company crafted no more than 63 visual effects shots realized with CGI in Jurassic Park. By comparison today, one of the most successful films of all-time, The Avengers, has over 2,200 visual effects shots with CGI; 90 minutes of Transformers: Age of Extinction’s ponderous 165-minute running time has CGI effects; even the widely enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, which has a surprising emphasis on character for a Marvel film, still relied on CGI for 2,750 of its shots. Another way to say that is 90 percent of Guardians features CGI in some capacity.
When CGI is the first, second, and third choice for all shots and visual effects, and the answer to all issues of entertainment, then expediency and complacency fills in for perfection, and instead of awe, audiences are increasingly left with apprehension.
In 1993, Spielberg boasted about the “T. Rex Saves the Day” ending in Jurassic Park. It was spontaneously created by Spielberg when he wanted to have an “audience cheer” moment; he also had finally grown comfortable enough with CGI to think he could somewhat improvise scenes with it. And he was not wrong to have known it is a masterfully transcendent moment of popcorn gratification (one of his last). He went so far as to say, “We were all a little scared of being too experimental at the beginning of the learning curve, but after a while, we were shooting this thing like we had been doing CGI movies for 10 years.”
But in the end, perhaps the effects are so much better because they hadn’t been.
This article was first published on June 9, 2015.